by Michael Prelee
Sheylan dropped her ski goggles over her eyes and adjusted them so they were comfortable against her face. She liked to test fit them before the race. Nothing was worse than wanting to adjust the damn things while zipping down a hill or making a jump. Her electric blue glide suit sparked under the morning sun, light glinting off its protective micro-plates. The helmet was tucked under her arm. It was aerodynamic, light weight and sculpted for the shape of her head. She would wait to put it on until she was in the gate. She moved up and looked down the hill over the garish orange protective fence. It was littered with sponsor decals and she was standing over an ad for algae processed food stuffs. It proclaimed, “Ten new flavors coming in June 2152”.
Her German competitor had jumped out of the gate fifteen seconds ago and was flying down the hill. A blur in yellow, Sheylan lost track of Julia Kleinschmidt as she dipped into a depression and then reappeared, launching like a rocket into the clear blue sky. Projectiles fired from hidden pneumatic cannons followed in her wake, unable to get a proper lead on the fast moving young woman from Munich. Sheylan noted the position of the cannons firing the black, hard rubber balls. At this level of Ski-Ball racers weren’t allowed to view the course ahead of time. All you got was a peek as the skier ahead of you took their turn. She did know this was a seven gate course which meant seven ambush spots.
Calamitous Point in Colorado hosted this year's Ski-Ball finals and it was the toughest slope in a circuit that stretched around the world. To get here Sheylan and four other competitors had raced semi-finals on five slopes on four other continents. The field of competitors had started out with seventy-five racers. Winning a slope meant you advanced to the finals in Colorado. Surviving without injury meant you advanced to the next course to try again. At the fifth and last semi-final race in France only twenty-eight racers were still healthy enough to compete. That was the race that Sheylan had won.
She turned to a large monitor and watched as Kleinschmidt jinked left to avoid a cannon buried in the snow firing straight up. She had seen a Canadian skier take a shot from one of those in Alberta. The woman’s skis and tibias had shattered under the impact.
Sheylan hugged herself but kept her eyes glued to the monitor. The suit stiffened up as she squeezed her arms. She was grateful her mother had managed to find a sponsor who cared enough to buy her the impact resistant suit. It was supple enough to allow her to move but it had carbon fiber point-of-impact armor capabilities that might save her life if a six kilo ball managed to hit her. She was equally grateful that Kleinschmidt was as talented as she was. The further she made it down the slope the more of the course Sheylan got to see. The figure in yellow hurtled through the air again but the slope’s targeting computers were getting her timing down. She had to spread her legs to avoid a head on shot and landed badly on her left leg. Sheylan watched as Kleinschmidt wobbled, planted a pole hard in the snow and then regained her balance. She had five seconds to tuck in and pick up lost speed before the fourth gate and the next ambush.
Kleinschmidt was big for a racer, 10 centimeters taller than Sheylan and heavier too. Sheylan had a racers slim build and weighed only fifty-five kilos. She moved her skis back and forth unconsciously, nervously applying balm to her lips to keep them from drying out in the cold air. She thought about her mom, back at the apartment with her two little brothers, fidgeting on the broken sofa that was held up with a cinder block in one corner. She didn't know where her dad was and hadn't for many years.
Until she’d taken a ski course through the city’s Let’s Achieve! program three years ago Sheylan was afraid her life would be like her mom’s; get knocked up by some neighborhood loser and make do on the twelve hundred calorie rations the state provided anyone who couldn’t find work in a job market where nineteen percent unemployment was the norm. The glide suit was the most comfortable thing she had ever worn, a hundred times more comfortable than the poor fitting rough synthetic charity clothes they handed out in the school gym. The color washed out after a half dozen trips through the laundry and then you looked like all the older girls hanging out on the stoop steps.
Kleinschimdt was at gate five of seven now. Momma Kleinschmidt had been a world champion Ski-Baller, at least until she’d taken two balls at once in Austria. The first one had hit her in the head from behind (this was before the rules change in 2133 outlawed rear firing cannons) and the second had taken her in the right hip a half second later while she was stunned and unable to dodge. She’d learned to walk again after six months. She worked hard training her daughter to follow in her footsteps. Crazy chick, Sheylan thought.
Disaster hit the yellow figure on the slopes so fast Sheylan had to wait for the slo-mo replay on the big monitor to see what happened. The crowd on the hill gasped as one as her competitor turned into a tumbling yellow frenzy of snow and blood. Grapeshot, that most dreaded of Ski-Ball traps! Sheylan watched the replay as Kleinschmidt hunched low to avoid a heavy ball and skipped off a small mogul into the air. A large cannon popped out of the snow and blasted a half dozen one kilo balls linked with ten meters of cable at the German. In the slo-mo Sheylan could see the mess wrap around her legs at the knee and continue up her body until the last one caught her in the face. The replay held steady on a high-def frame that captured blood and smashed teeth exploding from her mouth. Sheylan exhaled and was glad she had asked for a helmet with a decent mouth guard. Whatever advice momma Kleinschmidt had given regarding good face protection seemed inadequate.
Sheylan moved up the hill and calmly took her place in the gate. The monitors to her right showed the medics collecting Kleinschmidt from the slope. Sheylan took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She held the breath, going through her pre-race process, calming herself before the horn blew. Forget the prize money, forget what a million dollars could buy, how it could get her mother and brothers out of that hovel of an apartment. Think about the slope, the course and where the ambushes might be. A judge tapped her on the shoulder, giving her the signal that the course was reset. The monitor was now showing her in the gate. She put the helmet on, snugging the chin strap tight. Faster than she would have imagined the lights counted down and the horn blew. She jumped out of the gate and sped down the mountain.
Scanners in the helmet started working the slope immediately looking for cannons and other traps. The kinetic multipliers in her skis amplified her movement and pushed her down the slope at close to two hundred kilometers per hour. A signal flashed on the left of her helmet’s heads-up-display and she kicked hard, picking up speed. A bank of cannons opened up on her, sending one rubber projectile after another at her. She kicked hard again and crouched, using the glide suits low friction coating to her advantage. That old fighter pilot mantra, “speed is life”, flickered across her consciousness and she poured it on.
At gate two she was watching for the buried cannon that shot straight up and still almost missed it. She could have sworn it was two meters to the left but it went off and narrowly missed her ski. As soon as she was past the gate she jinked right, caught a mogul and took to the air. The altitude let her look down the mountain and for a second she could see the grape-shot cannon that had taken down Kleinschmidt. Then she was back in the powder, leaving a roster tail of the white stuff as she jetted through another gate.
The jump slowed her down some and she paid the price for it. A cannon popped up, took aim and fired a ball at her. She panicked, leaned to her right and her shoulder grazed the snow as the ball shot passed on her left. Moving slower than ever because of that dodge she kicked hard and stayed low.
Gate four was a nightmare. Sheylan dodged crossfire from six cannons. A similar cannon configuration had killed a competitor in India during the second trial six weeks ago. Maria Bataglio of Italy had taken four shots, three to the torso and one to the head. The racer had been all but dead by the time she stopped tumbling. She never made it to the medical tent with a pulse.
Sheylan was exhausted. Two months of workouts and races had taken their toll. Her legs felt rubbery and her mouth was dry but she pushed hard and tried to pick up speed. The helmet display computed speed and made a guess as to what might be the safest path down the slope.
She took another mogul hard and jumped just as the grape-shot went off. She was hoping to clear it with a good jump. Her strategy worked but the wire wrapped around the pole in her left hand and tore it away. With a skipped heart beat and breath held tight she hit the powder. Kicking hard and pushing with her remaining pole she tried for speed.
The slope dropped off and gaining speed stopped being a problem. The speedometer in her helmet quickly reached one-hundred seventy kilometers per hour and turned red. Sheylan slalomed, trading precious velocity for control, trying to bleed off speed like a space shuttle coming in for re-entry. She lost sight of the gate and leaned hard right to get through it.
The final ambush was something only Kimiyo Harada had seen. Of the five racers competing today three had crashed and only the Japanese national champion had finished. The timer in Sheylan’s helmet showed that she was only a tenth of a second behind Harada.
She straightened out her course and willed herself to the finish line. She had another choice similar to gate five; a nicely packed path to the left and a mogul to the right. The jump had worked at gate five so she steered hard right and jumped hard.
A cannon broke through the snow near the finish line and fired as she took to the air. The ball looked like an asteroid as it sped through the air toward Sheylan. She swung her pole up sticking it out straight like she was jousting the ball. It connected with tremendous force. The carbon fiber pole didn’t snap but the impact drove up her arm and forced her wrist back. The ball bounced off her right forearm and the suit did its job. The micro-plates hardened at the point of impact, which saved her arm, but the force spun her around. She sprawled through the air, eyeing the finish line. Her skis came down at odd angles and she half-kicked, half leapt to the line. She rolled across and lay in the snow as the crowd rushed forward with cameras in their hands.
Her eyes found the leader board and her heart fell. She was a full second behind Harada. Second place paid half a million. She smiled. There was always next year.